Nuggets From Sheela Murthy's Call
Posted by Rahul Brown on Jul 26, 2021
When the artist husband of renowned immigration lawyer Sheela Murthy suggested more than 25 years ago that she should freely give away detailed information on the then-nascent Internet, Murthy thought, “If I didn’t love this man, I’d think he wants to bankrupt me.” But heeding his instincts, Murthy Law Firm began pouring informational resources freely onto the web to help would-be immigrants navigate real-life issues not necessarily requiring professional legal advice. Having been frustrated by her own experience, Sheela reveled in the opportunity to help immigrants feel empowered and respected. And the firm’s website soon became the most visited law firm website in the world. She now runs the world’s pre-eminent U.S. immigration law firm. She has compassionately guided clients through the changes following 9/11 and then the 2016 Presidential election with deep hospitality and trusted relationships.
Below are some of the nuggets from the call that stood out for me ...
- Her vision of the American dream was similiar to many immigrants who are bright-eyed and bushy tailed, brimming with energy, optimism and a sense of opportunity. At the same time, she experienced what many new immigrants experience: there were so many cultural contexts and nuances that were difficult to navigate and absorb. What hit her most was the freedom and the choices. She couldn’t believe late night hosts could make fun of the president – which is not possible even in other ‘free countries’. So much of America seemed too good to be true. Now 35 years later, she really wants to help people not feel alone in a new country despite perhaps not knowing even a single person.
- She went through many confusing visa statuses in her journey to citizenship. The whole process was difficult to navigate. Her own lawyer was neither empathetic nor sympathetic. He just needed to get paid. It was a very lonely, difficult, stressful process. There was no Wikipedia or Google back then. You had to go to a library and read a book or buy a book. Now some immigration lawyers are upset by how much information she shares for free. Often immigration law is compared to securities law from a complexity perspective. It's not a warm fuzzy experience for many people.
- Her orientation to life is that the glass is half-full. So as a young lawyer, she was delighted to help in whatever matters she was asked to participate in by her corporate law firm -- even if that meant learning about immigration law rather than traditional corporate law. When she did her first immigration cases and it opened some doors for the clients, it inspired her that she could make an incredible impact for generations. Her work became about changing both the face of America and the destiny of a given family for generations to come. She tells her team, "we don’t just process a person’s FILE, we are changing LIFE for our clients." She reminds her team that if they were to visit other countires, they’d kiss the ground of America.
- Her first case was an Iranian doctor who didn’t want to return to his home country. He was on a J-1 visa that required him to go back to Iran for a minimum of 2 years. She visited his house because she didn’t even have a proper office at the time. Rather than "gaming" the system by serving in an underserved medical area of America (instead of returning to Iran) for two years, he ended up working in the Appalachian areas and stayed for decades to try and give back to this country. So many immigrants feel like ‘how can we give back to this country that has given us so much’ because they feel so blessed and fortunate.
- She doesn't feel it's truly her role to judge the worthiness or intentions of an applicant seeking to immigrate. Someone wanting a better life -- how can we judge that? We all want people to seek their higher calling. If it’s a black & white ethical or legal issue, that’s the line she won’t cross, but if there is a true gray area in the law, she would present the case. She simply tries to help them to the best of her ability. Even for the 1% who fail, she still goes back and approaches the case with fresh arguments.
- The early childhood influence was her father, who was a retired colonel in the Indian Army. His father told him "the moment you ask me for a cent is the day you stop going to school." Her dad told her that except for the accident of birth, you could be some other less fortunate kid. So she always felt fortunate for the opportunities she had, and she had to be much more empathetic to the suffering of others. It came down to wanting to treat others as she wanted to be treated. When a client says their encounter with her is the first time someone has listened, valued, and appreciated them—it’s a deeper compliment than knowing the law and building a brilliant argument. She feels gratitude even for those who have treated her poorly, because it reminds her to never treat others in the same way and instead treat them better.
- She makes people feel heard by the way she asks a question, the silence when she listens, the ‘hmms’ ‘ahas’ etc can make people feel seen. "Who you are is shouting so loudly, I can’t hear what you are saying, " speaks to embodying hospitality. People feel isolated and abandoned in the immigration process, but when you make people feel connected and cared for, it's magical. Often it's just a few words that people have never heard anyone say to them. Sometimes she'll spend a few extra minutes talking about people's mistakes, stressing that she’ll help them overcome them.
- Her husband Vasant is one of the nicest people she’s ever met. She felt it would be an honor to be connected to him for life at their first meeting. He said it was love at first sight. They are as different as night and day. A common friend jokes that Vasant was put on earth to pull people up the spiritual ladder.
- Vasant was drawn to her because people who are not like him are intriguing and exciting. That exuberance and love of life in Sheela really came through. He doesn’t get too excited about too many things. The freshness of friendship still exists between them -- Sheela commented that they still find topics they've never talked about after 30+ years together. They still learn from each other. As long as you enjoy each other’s presence, he feels that’s all that matters.
- He started teaching his art students on how to put art online to gain more exposure. As Sheela was getting more knowlegable, he felt that imparting knowledge was more important than gaining clients. He felt the money would come, so they weren’t worried that giving away free legal information would cause them to starve.
Lots of gratitude to all the behind-the-scenes volunteers that made this call happen!